This week we reunite with three characters from the archives, French personnages who have touched me in one way or another. I hope they will touch you, too. Note: a sound file for today's word, and more, can be found at the end of this letter.
The man in line in front of me wore pantoufles two sizes too small. His swollen calves, riddled with eczema, hung over his ankles, which disappeared into his shrunken slippers. As usual, he wore sweatpants that rose mid-calf.
I often see the man in pantoufles hanging out of a village poubelle. He is passionate about garbage and is forever reaching for it. His backside, with the vertical line peeking out from the center of his waistband, is a familiar sight in our village. When he isn't dangling (and flashing) from a trash barrel, he is hunched over, collecting litter from the street, careful to put the waste where it belongs. We have a tidy village thanks to this man, who appears to both love and abhor trash.
Standing in line at the Crédit Agricole, the man wearing pantoufles waited for his turn to visit the bank teller. He had that same blank look on his face, the one he wears while hunting for garbage: expressionless, transfixed by trash—or troubled by it, you never know.
From behind the counter, the pretty guichetière inquired:
"How much today, Jean-Pierre?"
J.-P. stepped forward and replied, "Vingt euros."
"Il n'y a pas. You don't have that much," she answered. "How about fifteen?"
Jean-Pierre nodded, fixing his eyes on a ballpoint pen chained to the comptoir.
"Here you are. And don't spend it all at the Bar des Sports, okay?"
Jean-Pierre remained unresponsive to the guichetière's charm and humor. Though the carefree cashier and the catatonic garbage-picker had this same exchange every day, I stood there, ill at ease about overhearing the limits of J.-P.'s fortune. Not that I didn't know even more about him—and his family (everyone knows everything about everybody in this village. Or so they like to think they do).
Take, for example, J.-P.'s sister, Agnès, who hangs out the clothes to dry along their apartment's tiny 2nd-floor balcony. She does housework in her underwear. The only time she is dressed is in the winter or when she walks her dilapidated dog. She has the exact same corpulent frame as her brother and looks identical to him; only, she wears teal-green eye shadow, caked black mascara and red lipstick when she drinks. Drunk or sober, her hair is a nid d'oiseau. When she's not hanging out clothes, she can be heard a kilometer away, barking orders to their elderly mother.
"J'en ai marre! Mange! Mange! I'm fed up! Eat! Eat!" she says, waving a spoon before her mother.
My own mom, Jules, who lived for a while in a third-floor studio across the street from Jean-Pierre and his family, encouraged me to not be so quick to judge Agnès (pronounced ON-yes).
"She has so many worries," Mom explained. "Poor thing. She has to spoonfeed her mother, who sits there, mouth clamped shut, stubborn as can be. When she does get a spoonful in, her mother just spits it right back out! Then she's got all that laundry. She never stops!"
I tried not to judge Agnès, but I did find myself avoiding her, and I crossed the street at the sight of her and her porto-enflamed cheeks. Something about her seemed déséquilibrée.
One day, while walking to my mom's studio, I saw Agnès slumped over her doorstep. I noticed she was dressed. From her eyes poured two black rivers, down her face, across her red lips and onto her thin, soiled shirt. My mom sat next to Agnès, her arm around the sad woman's shoulder. In front of the women there was a flurry of French paramedics, beyond, a narrow stretcher covered with a long white sheet. My eyes locked on the bundle in the center, beneath le drap blanc.
That evening I saw Agnès' brother snapping up litter from the uneven cobblestone paths of our village. His pants were on straight, and the unsightly crack had disappeared. Gone were his predictable pantoufles. He wore white, canvas tennis shoes, his puffy heels hanging out the back. His face remained expressionless, though his lips sunk a bit at each end. His hair was combed, parted. And just like the garbage collector's shoes, the village was pristine the night they carried Agnès's and Jean-Pierre's mother away.
The trash man may never understand the beautiful bank teller's humor, but Life's comedy is something he knows: as with the never-ending reach of litter, the trick is to keep moving, to keep after it. Life, that is.
* * *
Not sure how to respond to today's story? Maybe you'd rather answer this light-hearted question, instead: Do you, like Agnès, do housework in your underwear? Answers, here.
le personnage = character
la pantoufle = house slippers
la poubelle = garbage can
le Crédit Agricole = the "largest retail banking group in France"
la guichetière = the bank teller
vingt euros = twenty euros
le comptoir = counter
le nid d'oiseau = bird's nest
déséquilibré = unbalanced
le drap blanc = white sheet
un(e) pantouflard(e) = a homebody
The verb "pantoufler" means to leave a government job to work for a private corporation (speaking of a civil servant).
passer sa vie dans ses pantoufles = to live a secluded life
raisonner comme une pantoufle = (to reason like a slipper) to reason foolishly
And a charming old expression (sadly, not used anymore): "Et caetera pantoufle" or "Etc. pantoufle" used to end an enumeration. "In our refrigerator we have milk, eggs, butter, sour cream, etc. pantoufle."
Shopping: two books
1. French dictionary: Acclaimed by language professionals the world over, the Oxford-Hachette Dictionary has long been the market leader.
2. Barron's How to Prepare for the AP French Advanced Placement Examination
Citation du Jour:
Il y a de grands voyages qu'on ne fait bien qu'en pantoufles.
There are great journeys that are best traveled in slippers.
Songs in French for Children including Alouette, Sur le Pont d'Avignon, Claire Fontaine, Prom'non Nous dans les Bois...
More characters on the way, in the Wednesday and Friday editions! Meantime, don't miss some of my favorite personnages in my book: Words in a French Life. You'll meet "Madame Richard," "La Petite Souris", and one persnickety priest ... among many other French characters. And if you already have a copy of "Words", why not buy another copy for a friend? You might just ignite the love of French life in another, and there's no telling where this language adventure will take them. I still can't believe where it has taken me!
Three Random Words:
desseller = to unsaddle
empoté,e = awkward, maladroit, clumsy
fâcher = to make angry, to vex
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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety